Most people occasionally tell lies for personal gain or to avoid punishment, but those who are afflicted with a disorder known as pathological lying often tell lies that have no clear purpose.
The lies may be extremely far-fetched and out of proportion to reality. In many cases the lies will hurt the person who tells them, making a pathological liar’s behavior incomprehensible to most people.
In an article on the Psychiatric Times website, Dr. Charles Dike of the Yale University School of Medicine describes a case study for a patient he calls Mr. A, who was facing loss of his job due to lying. Mr. A told co-workers that he had been diagnosed with an incurable disease. People in his workplace were initially concerned and supportive, but as weeks passed they became suspicious about the nature of his illness. He began to tell increasingly outrageous lies to cover up previous lies. When he could no longer take the pressure, he stopped going to work. While it may seem that he told the original lie to elicit sympathy, in the end he suffered consequences that included extreme anxiety and potential loss of his job. Adding to Mr. A’s problems was the fact that he had lost other jobs in the past and his personal life was suffering because of his lying. He was aware that his behavior was not normal but felt that he could not control his lying, so he sought psychiatric help.
This case illustrates some of the common traits associated with pathological lying (also referred to as mythomania or morbid lying):
• Excessive lying that is easy to verify as untrue.
• Lies are told that bring no benefit and may be harmful to the liar.
• The behavior is repeated again and again with no regard for consequences.
• Pathological liars often can’t seem to tell truth from lies and may contradict themselves when questioned.
Although pathological lying has been recognized by mental health experts for more than a hundred years, there has been a limited amount of research dedicated to the disorder. One study of1000 juvenile offenders cited by Dr. Dike found that about 1% were affected by pathological lying. The behavior began on average at age 16 and was detected by age 22. Males and females seem to be equally affected by the disorder.
The Mayo Clinic categorizes pathological lying as belonging to the spectrum of behaviors known as Antisocial Personality Disorder (formerly referred to as Sociopathic). Other symptoms of this personality disorder include blatant disregard for the feelings and safety of others, aggressive or violent behavior and recurring problems with law enforcement and other authority figures. Antisocial Personality Disorder is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Neglect, abuse and trauma in childhood can increase the risk of developing this personality disorder.
People who appear to be suffering from pathological lying should consult a health care provider or mental health professional. Because it is a chronic condition that occurs throughout adulthood, long-term treatment is often needed. Treatment approaches include psychotherapy, medication and hospitalization. Untreated, this condition can cause significant damage to both the person with the disorder and to their families, friends and colleagues.